, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 19-29
Date: 13 Jun 2013

Long-term exposure to income inequality: implications for physical functioning at older ages

Abstract

The ‘inequality hypothesis’ proposes that higher levels of societal income inequality have a direct negative causal effect on health. Support for this hypothesis has been mixed; particularly among older people. However, most previous studies have not accounted for people’s exposure to inequality over the long-term. We aimed to address this problem by examining the implications of long-term inequality exposure for older people’s physical health. Data on individual health and covariates were drawn from three large, comparable surveys of older people, covering 16 countries: the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, the Survey of Health and Retirement in Europe and the U.S. Health and Retirement Study. Historical inequality information was derived from the Standardised World Income Inequality Database. We used multilevel regression methods to model the association between long-term average inequality and three measures of physical functioning: grip strength, lung function and self-reported activity limitation. Exposure to higher average long-term levels of inequality was significantly negatively related to objectively measured grip strength and lung function, but unrelated to self-reported limitations (although increasing inequality over time was positively related to self-reported limitations). The grip strength and lung function associations were partially explained by between-country differences in height, and in the latter case this factor may fully account for the apparent effect of inequality. We discuss implications of these results for the inequality hypothesis.

Responsible editor: D. J. H. Deeg.